Nicholas Nixon - Technique : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

I've recently been exposed to the work of LF photographer, Nicholas Nixon, in SCHOOL, remaindered at $3.99 at Waldon Books. There's a lot of material about him on the Web, but virtually nothing about his technique other than he uses view cameras from 8x10 up to 16x20. Many of the people in his pictures appear to be performing normal daily activities, but it's hard to believe that if they aren't posed then it's at least staged. He's about the only LF photographer I've seen that uses DOF to his advantage (no F:64 and be there for him). Has anyone observed his technique? Does he use bounced flash? Does he focus and compose carefully (then close the lens and insert the holder and pull the dark slide) after setting up the shots that appear so sponteneous? Anyhow, IMHO he's uno mucho macho photographer!

-- Bill Mitchell (, May 31, 2001



He's on the faculty at MassArt (Massachusetts College of Art), why don't you give him a call? 617.232.1555 (main #) Website:


-- Tony Pulsone (, May 31, 2001.

View Camera published an atricle about Nixon in the Jan/Feb 98 issue. The article briefly mentions the AT SCHOOL book but does not give a great deal of information on technique. There are a few notes at the end of the article, including information about his current (1998) camera (8x10 Canham), his film (Tri-X), and his paper (AZO). The article also suggests that he shoots a great deal of film, perhaps as many as 100 sheets per week. Hope this helps.


-- Dave Willison (, May 31, 2001.

Yes, he uses a single bounce flash. You can see that in his images. Everything I've read indicates that he shoots solely on 8x10 and has for at least the past twenty five years. He is also about the last photographer I'd describe as "macho" (based solely on his images. There was a retrospective book that came out about ten years ago, before he started the "School" project.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, May 31, 2001.


I'm curious about your characterization of Nixon as "macho". From his images of children and AIDS victims, I thought of him as anything but macho. Maybe we have different definitions for "macho".

-- Chris Ellinger (, June 01, 2001.

Any photographer who makes pictures with an 8x10 that I would take with 35mm is Mucho Macho in my book.

-- Bill (, June 01, 2001.


read my reply again. I was rectint oBill's characterization of Nixon as "uno mucho macho photographer". But it really does take real courage to confront the effects of such a ravaging disease on a subject at such close rangeover a long period of time, as Nicholas Nixon did with his AIDS project.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, June 01, 2001.

After looking at a number of his school photographs on the web, I'm quite impressed that he has accomplished what appear to be Leica-style "candid" images with an 8x10. But this leads me to wonder why anyone would bother, except maybe to prove that it can be done. It seems that the advantages of the 8x10 format are largely lost on this type of photography--would these images really be any less effective if taken on a small or medium format camera? Can't say for sure without seeing them "in person," I guess, but I have my doubts.

Also, I cannot help but be conscious of the fact that all of these rather intimate, and apparently unposed images were taken in the presence of a huge 8x10 camera, with tripod, filmholders, etc. This increase my skepticism about the spontaniety and genuineness of the images in a way knowledge of the presence of a smaller camera would not. So in that respect, Nixon's use of 8x10 actually detracts from the images for me.

-- Chris Patti (, June 01, 2001.

I really encourage every photographer to buy one of Nicholas Nxon's books or if you afford it, one of his prints.

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, June 01, 2001.

Clarification: My use of "Mucho Macho Photographer" is intended in the purest sense of awe and respect for the quality and character of his work, as well as the size of his camera. (Like Edward Weston, not Rambo.)

-- Bill (, June 01, 2001.

Mr. Patti,

Which do you think is larger? An Arri BL or a Phillips 8 X 10? A Sony Betacam or a Wisner Pocket Expedition? Which takes a bigger crew to run? And yet how many documentaries have been made with the former two?

What it takes is time and patience. Nixon spent two years photographing at the school for the blind (name escapes me at the moment). Although they couldn't see him, they were certainly aware of him. If you spend days and days and days with your subject, "dry shooting", as Nixon may have, a rapport develops, trust can be built up. Eventually the subject relaxs and "acts natural" or at least as natural as it is possible for anyone to act in this wacky post modern world in which we live.

FWIW, Bebe Nixon, Nick's wife, is a documentary producer and worked on NOVA for quite some time.

If anything, Nixon's use of the 8 X 10 helps create a sense of trust with the subject - he cannot hide what he is doing as he could with a Leica or whatnot.

-- Sean yates (, June 01, 2001.

Well, Sean, I agree: the equipment of documentary film makers is, in most cases, even more intrusive than Nixon's 8x10 equipment. Perhaps that is why I often find myself thinking when I see a film documentary that I am not watching these people doing what they are doing on film but these people in the presence of a crew, camera, lights, etc. Thus it is hard not to feel that the subjects are "playing" to the camera, that the camera becomes a central player in whatever drama we are watching, and that the "reality" we see is heavily influenced by its presence. To me, one of the advantages of the still camera for documentary work is that minimizes this effect, not through "stealth" exactly, but through its relative lack of obtrusiveness which allows it more easily to be forgotten. All I'm saying is that by using an 8x10, Nixon has to some significant degree undermined that advantage for no corresponding advantage that I can see. As a viewer of his images, I cannot forget the fact of his fairly intrusive presence in the room with his subjects, and that diminishes their impact for me. Perhaps not for everyone though.

-- Chris Patti (, June 01, 2001.

I haven't done much portraiture but on the occasions I have, I found that the slow pace of work in LF actually makes the camera fade into the background. I confront a lot more awareness of the camera when I'm working in smaller formats. I suspect it is the same reason setting up a camera and remote triggering it (or setting up a blind and waiting a few hours or days) works so well with wildlife. Once the creature has got used to the structure, it ignores it. I suspect that psychologically that happens here as well. The slow pace of work (and the associated greater amount of time spent talking to the person) literally lets the camera fade into the background or rather it literally becomes a familiar part of one's psychological background - one stops being aware of it. Not to mention the fact that there is an art to the whole process beyond the mechanics of whatever camera you choose to work with - some folks just seem to put others at ease very naturally and effortlessly. Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, June 01, 2001.

We must also keep in mind that he was the Dad of one of the fifth graders, so it wasn't like having a total stranger coming into the schoolroom.

-- Bill (, June 01, 2001.

One of the things I like about making portraits with the 8x10" camera is the sense of collaboration it creates with the subject. The camera might be fairly close in at full extension to get a tight headshot, so the subject needs to be still and needs to know something about the procedures. I explain how everything works and I might let them look at the groundglass. Sometimes I use unshuttered lenses with strobes, adding to the unusual character of the ritual (focus, insert film, remove darkslide, wait for expression, remove lenscap, fire strobe, replace lenscap) and requiring even more attention on the part of the subject. Rather than being intimidated by the big camera, I find they feel more part of the process.

-- David Goldfarb (, June 01, 2001.

I completely agree with David Goldfarb and N. Dhananjay; I experienced similar reactions from people photographed with 8x10. They feel more at ease with the big not hideable instrument, which is after a while part of the "background". With the small 35mm a lot of people are suspisious about the intention of the photographer; especially when the photographer is not speeking to them, revealing his intention verbally (a lot of photogs are "steeling" their images as hidden as possible). With 8x10 this is not possible; one has to establish a communication with the subject in front of the camera. It is a part of the photographers art and ability to make the people feel comfortable so they can act naturally without fear after a while. And to put into consideration: why do you think are all the selfportraits of Rembrandt such revealing images? Rembrandt was constantly playing in front of the mirror when drawing; he reveals his personality in hundreds of played roles, coming from his imagination. Posing must not be false by definition. A snapshot taken from the undiscovered might be an image more telling about the anecdotic moment than about the person acting in this moment;or an image of a person aware of the process of portraiing might reveal more the persons character.

Urs Bernhard

-- Urs Bernhard (, June 02, 2001.

While we're on the topic....

Any thoghts on Andrea Modica's technique?

-- Sean Yates (, June 02, 2001.

The latest 'Contact Sheet' (hope that is the name of the magazine - it is Contact something) has a bunch of Andrea Modica's work (from the Treadwell series and some more recent work). I find her work interesting, though not with as much immediacy or as much gusto as I enjoy some other folks work. Don't know much about her technique, other than the fact that she works in 8x10 and prints in platinum. She seems to access/create some strange worlds - her questions and explorations would seem to ask for more guts than I've got. Certainly seems to dig deeper into personality and psyche than journalistic images - must call for immense trust.

I guess that is the difference I see between portraits made with larger formats and smaller formats. The smaller formats are obviously great for reportage kinds of situations, where the emotion of the moment overwhelms consideration of your sorroundings. The portraits in larger formats strikes me as a more considered invitation into some kind of inner sanctum - a sort of essence of the person. Even the spontaniety seems a different kind of spontaniety - something that seems to come from deeper within rather than without. And now I'm clutching at straws to describe what cannot be described, I guess. Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, June 03, 2001.

The latest issue of Photovision also has an interesting piece about Shelby Adams and his work in Appalachia and his techniques. Cheers, DJ.

-- N Dhananjay (, June 04, 2001.

One reason Nick Nixon uses an 8x10 is so that he can make contact prints on Azo.

He works quickly and spontaneously. And sometimes he makes absolutely amazing photographs. If you know what you are doing, the camera does not get in the way of the interaction between yourself, as photographer, and the subject, whether the camera is an 8x10 a 35mm. It is always the photographer who gets in the way, never the camera.

Michael A. Smith

-- Michael A. Smith (, June 07, 2001.

Dear Michael Smith, Amen!

-- Ellis Vener Photography (, June 08, 2001.

Agreed. Still, I would be interested in EXACTLY how he managed to work and got those great pictures without disrupting the class. Or maybe he did disrupt it?

-- lsmft (, June 08, 2001.

I studied with Nick in my undergrad years at MassArt. He is a wonderful person, and a bit "macho" (affinity for cowboy belt bucles+shirts), as well as having a very sensitive side. He is very quick with the 8x10, and focuses with a surprising rapidity. He (for the school pictures) set up a Comet flash (prob 1600ws+), which allows him to photograph anywhere in the room. He shoots at least 25 sheets a day. If you work that much, it becomes 2nd nature. This is no long belabored process, it is much more reactive. I had bought a grover 8x10 before knowing his work, and used it for a month-then was amazed at what he was doing. It made perfect sense. Why was this wonderful instrument only being used by knob twiddlers and landscapists only? Look at his city scape pictures from the 70's-8x10 from tops of buildings(many of them skyscrapers)-insane. He was the largest formative influence on me(still is), and his work is awe inspiring. Too often lumped together in purely Modernist camp, because of the whole black and white thing. That will come around as soon as people start enjoying images that arent as influenced by fashion mags again...

-- Benjamin Donaldson (, September 08, 2001.

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